New York Focus: "Records Reveal New York’s Growing Mountain of Water Debt"

Date: March 17, 2021

By Julia Rock | March 17, 2021

On October 25, 2019, two days before her quarterly bill was due, Marie, 54, woke up to find that no water was coming out of her faucets. 

She had known she was about $800 behind on water bill payments, but hadn’t realized that her water would be shut off. “I thought I had until at least the next bill was due, on October 27,” Marie told New York Focus. 

When Marie called to have the water turned back on, Veolia, the private company that manages Buffalo’s water services, demanded she pay at least half of what she owed on the spot, Marie said–more than $400. She borrowed the money from her aunt.

Since her mother died a few years ago, Marie, who asked to withhold her last name, has struggled to make water payments that total about $300 each quarter for service to her own apartment and her mother’s in their double decker house. “There was no possible way I could do more than I was doing” to catch up, Marie said.

Marie is now $1,600 behind on her water payments and faces the threat of another shutoff. When Covid-19 hit last March, her tenant stopped paying rent, and she lost all of her income and became unable to pay the water bill: “I worry about having the money to buy toothpaste, how am I going to find the money to pay for water?”

Her case is not unusual. Records obtained by New York Focus reveal a growing mountain of water debt in New York. In two of the state’s largest water systems, tens of thousands of customers are in millions of dollars in debt.

The state currently has a moratorium on water shutoffs, but that expires at the end of the month. A coalition of advocates for water affordability is pushing the legislature to extend the moratorium—and to strengthen its protections for New Yorkers in water debt.

Presented with data obtained by New York Focus, Rob Hayes, the Director of Clean Water at the Environmental Advocates of New York, said that it showed the depth of the crisis facing New Yorkers behind on water payments.

“If the current law expires, tens of thousands of families will lose protections that might be keeping them afloat right now. With so many people behind on their water bills, it is clear that state leaders need to extend and strengthen New York’s shut-off moratorium,” Hayes said.

A Growing Mountain of Water Debt

The cost of water has risen dramatically across the country over the past two decades, as federal spending cuts to aging water infrastructure left ratepayers to foot the bill. While no comprehensive study has been taken of rate increases in New York state, water affordability advocates say costs have risen in step with national trends.

Records obtained by New York Focus through Freedom of Information Law requests show that the scope of the state’s water debt crisis is greater than previously known.

Nearly ten percent of households served by Suffolk County Water Authority are at least 30 days behind on water payments. 32,789 out of approximately 360,000 residential customers owe the Authority a combined total of about $9 million, averaging about $270 per household.

Of the 186,400 residential customers served by the Monroe County Water Authority, 6,547 residential customers are at least 30 days behind on water payments, owing a total of $1,510,699, and an average of about $230. 

Alicia Simson, the internal auditor for the Suffolk County Water Authority, told New York Focus that the problem has sharply worsened during the pandemic. Water customers in Suffolk County hold about double the amount of arrearages, meaning accumulated missed payments, than they did a year ago. When the moratorium is not in effect, Suffolk County customers face shutoffs for falling two payment cycles behind or owing $200 or more in bills.

New York City has seen an increase in both the number of people who had outstanding water bills and the amount they owed in the past year, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection said. The department has not responded to New York Focus’s requests for data.

Most water systems in New York don’t shut off service for nonpayment, instead taking out liens on customer properties or pursuing unpaid bills in other ways. But in Buffalo, where shutoffs are permitted, Marie is one of thousands of people who lost access to water for nonpayment before the pandemic.

According to a forthcoming report from the Partnership for the Public Good in Buffalo, a community think tank, water was shut off in occupied residences 2,518 times in 2019. Over 300 of those residences were shut off for owing less than $500. 

In cities like Buffalo where shutoffs are permitted, the mounting debt spells trouble for water access after the moratorium ends if structural changes are not made to address the affordability crisis.

Read the full article on the New York Focus website here.